Thursday, December 07, 2006

How Good is Good Advice?

Good advice costs nothing and it's worth the price -- Allan Sherman.

An Anecdote

Before I made aliyah (moved to Israel) I had some friends who had made yeridah (moved away from Israel, back to the U.S.) While lovely in many ways, this nice young couple warned us that one of the difficulties that they found in Israel was finding work and a sustainable income. It so impacted their lives, and the lives of their social circle, they said, that people didn't invite each other over as guests because they simply couldn't afford to.

That was their experience. And of course, it made us nervous. Were we walking into potential social isolation?

As it turns out, our experience couldn't be further from that. Yes, I've had periods of difficult economic times in Israel; I may still have more. But even during those periods, we experienced no loss in invitations to be guests, or inability to have guests. We can create extraordinarily good, yet still inexpensive, meals, even for shabbat.


Did we get good advice? Or bad advice?

Is advice good or bad based on the likelihood of its possibility? Its objectivity? Or can it only be judged in hindsight?

Scott Adams

Scott Adams claims to have ignored all advice he is given his whole life and everything seems to have turned out ok. "Claims", I would say, because I'm sure he was also told not to cross in the middle of the street, play Russian Roulette, or eat raw chicken; he probably follows those pieces of advice.

So when he claims to have ignored so much advice, is this a self-selective reflection? I.e. does he only remember those pieces of advice that he ignored and that turned out well, while conveniently forgetting all the advice he takes that turns out well? How often does he ignore advice and it turns out poorly?


What should I tell my 16 year-old who wants to quit school and form a band? "Don't do it" just because the odds are against you? "Do it, or you'll regret not having tried it"? And if he does or doesn't succeed, does that change post-facto the quality of my advice?

Maybe he knows something that I don't about his music. Or maybe I know that he's not really serious enough about the hardships he will face.

I can give advice. But should I? Maybe good advice is telling him the odds and letting him decide, without any exhortations one way or the other. Or maybe I don't know the odds, because I don't know all the factors that affect his decision; I only know the factors that would affect my own decision, or that guided me when I was younger.

Experience in Games

When I teach games, I like to teach only the rules and the very bare basics of strategy that I feel playing without which would be unsporting. If you don't explain the basics about valuing money versus victory points in Puerto Rico, you're going to win twenty straight games before the player figures it out. Maybe it's more fun for them to figure it out for themselves. But in the meantime, you have shortcutted twenty essentially uninteresting games for you, and possibly saved your opponent from giving up on the game in disgust.

On the other hand, more advice than basics is generally bad, for a number of reasons. One is that advice assumes a lot about your experiences, when you might have been overlooking something all along. For instance, telling someone that he should do This because That always happens. That might always happen because no one simply thought to do something so that That wouldn't happen. If everyone follows the group-think, the game can stultify.

Second, there really is something to be said about learning something for yourself. It's like being told the answer to a math problem without seeing how the process went, and therefore not learning why it makes sense, and how to do it yourself. And how to apply that information to the next problem.

Furthermore, making the decisions is really the heart of playing games. If you're simply following communal decisions during a game, you're not really playing a game; you're playing a puzzle. And one person is simply moving pieces on behalf of another.

The Kick

Sometimes, going against conventional wisdom is not simply an act of a rebellious attitude or curiosity. Sometimes it is what you need to get a kick. You can't get your adrenaline flowing until you're trodding the uncertain path. How much risk you want to take - whether you want to burn the bridge behind you - is up to you. It depends on what you need. The only truism is that you're going to have to be ready to roll up your sleeves, instead of letting yourself get carried along the stream.


If you're getting advice, advice should be taken seriously, but it always needs to come with a tag: from a perspective. If a hundred people give you the same advice, you can safely assume that they cover a lot of perspectives, and that some of them will match yours. But you can still evaluate and decide if there is an overlooked perspective.

If you're giving advice, you should know why you're giving it, and from what perspective it is given. Probably, advice should be less exhortation and more information.


1 comment:

Gerald McD said...

"Neither a borrower nor a lender be." Interesting advice, but not necessarily useful in real life. Some advice is intended only to make a person think more discriminately, to consider more facts and consequences. Some advice is simply not useful and even harmful. Advice clearly must be carefully evaluated, considering the source(s) and the real applicability of it to the person receiving it. Some well-known "advice" may become meaningless with time or changing circumstances (new or changing facts).

Young people must learn to decide when to accept and act on advice and when to ignore it, although many "mature" people seem not to have effectively gone through the process -- perhaps never developing the "critical thinking" skill needed to do so.

Advice is a somewhat vague term, with a considerable range of meaning. I think it is very difficult to generalize about the subject of "advice."

I enjoyed your article very much, and I advise you to keep writing such. :-)